The statistics are frightening. Years ago, I don’t ever remember hearing about a child committing suicide. Teen suicide was even somewhat uncommon. Today elementary school teachers have to be trained in suicide prevention. Why? Because for the last few years a child under the age of 13 commits suicide every 3.4 days. Most of these children are 11-12 years old, but the youngest was only six. If you are African American, you have even more cause to be alarmed as roughly twice as many African American children commit suicide as their Caucasian peers.
There are many reasons a young person attempts suicide. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to get to the true roots of the problem with children who die. Often, many survivors will mention a feeling of extreme isolation and loneliness (sometimes also compounded by bullying.) As a parent, you probably already feel a bit helpless when your child brings home tearful tales of peer drama in school.
Assuming your child does not have an underlying mental health issue though, there are some things you can do as a parent to help your kids prepare for loneliness, being alone and solitude. You can’t solve all of their social issues – especially as they reach the teen years, but you can give them extra layers of protection from severe loneliness.
The best time to help your children be ready to prevent or handle loneliness is before they become lonely. Studies have shown that not only is the need to feel like they belong a basic need, but also when they are lonely, it only increases their sense of needing to feel like they belong somewhere. (Making them more susceptible to the temptations of peers to do ungodly things in order to belong.)
So what can you do as a parent to help your kids be prepared to handle the loneliness we all feel on occasion? Here are some of my favorites (Please note: These may not work for young people who have underlying mental health issues. Please have your child checked by a doctor for loneliness that seems to last more than a few days.):
- Help them understand God is active and alive in their world and loves them like no other. If your children believe God is active and alive, they will know He is always with them. If they know He loves them more than anyone and wants what is best for them, they will know they are loved and valued by someone. If they know how to be in communication with God through scripture, prayer, and more, they will have someone who will always listen to them and gives them the best possible answers. Yes, they will still get lonely from time to time, but in the very core of their being they will know God loves them even if at the moment it may seem like no one else does.
- Help them learn how to enjoy being alone and solitude. This will be more difficult for extroverted children perhaps, than introverted ones. Help your children understand that just because all of their friends are out of town, for example, does not mean they have to be lonely. This time alone is a great opportunity to enjoy things they like that either their friends don’t like or that they can enjoy more on their own. It’s a great time to have an excuse to spend time with mom and dad and let them spring for food and tickets. It’s the perfect time to make some new friends. Even the most extroverted kids need some down time to recharge. Help them learn to frame alone time as time to recharge their “batteries” – not as a rejection of them.
- Spend daily time with your children interacting in meaningful, present ways and with lots of love and affection. Yes, as they grow older, your children will probably prefer the company of peers over parents. Honestly though, most teens crave meaningful, engaged time with their parents – even if they won’t ask for it. They still want you to tell them they are loved and give them hugs – even if they roll their eyes. Making sure your children feel loved and liked by you, will soften the blow when they are going through a period when they feel rejected by peers or lonely. Studies are showing young people are more susceptible to a variety of serious teen problems in part because their parents are never around and when they are….they are more distracted than present. This can create an underlying loneliness and feeling of rejection that will be deepened when they also feel rejected by peers. Don’t leave any doubt in the minds of your children that you love them dearly.
- Help your children learn to be good friends and socially comfortable. Sometimes children are rejected by peers because they have annoying or mean behaviors. Encouraging your children to “be themselves”, does not mean they can be rude, mean or inconsiderate and expect to have other children want to be near them. Temple Grandin – a woman who has autism, but also is incredibly successful – asked her co-workers to help her learn how to react appropriately in social and work situations. She gave them permission to let her know when her habits or behaviors made others uncomfortable. When they pointed something out, she would work to establish new habits and behaviors that made others more comfortable. You want your children to be who God created them to be, but teaching her to look others in the eye or him not to pick fights when angry will benefit your children without changing their essence.
- Help your child develop one or two strong friendships – preferably with children from church. Your child may want to be the most popular kid in his class, but psychologically if he has one or two solid friends, he will probably be okay. The reason I suggest children from church is that hopefully they are being taught at home how to treat others in kind and loving ways. They will also be more likely to be making the same godly choices as your child which may make them outsiders with peers. Children who have been raised to be loving and kind are more likely to continue to at least be friendly with your children. There are no guarantees – mean kids can be found everywhere, but the children raised with godly values often make the best friends. When your children are young, don’t be afraid to be the one who initiates play dates. As they get older, encourage them to bring a friend- especially to fun things your family does. This is really important if you have an only child. You would pay for extra tickets or meals if you had another child in your family – consider this an important splurge.
- Keep them off of social media and limit internet access. Most social media platforms require someone to be 13 before allowing them access. Unfortunately, many parents allow their kids to lie about their birthdays, so they can participate in social media with their friends. Studies are showing more and more negative issues with social media and mental health (as well as socialization skills). Children are too young to handle all of the angst and pressure that comes with social media for the younger set. Don’t let your kids convince you they will somehow “be different” if they aren’t participating. Even if your kids may be able to handle social media responsibly, the chances their friends are all using social media responsibility are highly unlikely. Carefully, explain the concerns you have that are causing you to deny them access – starting with having to lie to gain access.
- Teach them the value of forgiveness. Your children need to understand often when someone is mean or rejects them, it says more about the other person than it does about them. Read young children the story of Jesus on the cross and the story of Ruby Bridges as a modern example. Focusing on praying for the other person and even finding ways to show love and caring in return will take the focus off of their personal feelings of rejection and loneliness. (They also need to practice assigning the best motives to others – they may not have been invited not because the person doesn’t like them, but because they thought your child wouldn’t want to come.)
- Encourage them to serve someone else. When you serve someone, it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself or lonely. There are a lot of ways even young children can interact with others while serving them or make new friends while working together on a project serving someone else.
- Give them hope. Remind your kids that life changes quickly. The loneliness your child feels today, may tomorrow become a feeling of being one of the most popular kids in school. Emotions and hormones run high and relationships and opinions about others can change on a day-to-day basis. Tell stories from your own childhood and how there were better days later. Tell about the times you met new friends who were even closer than your old ones. Give your children the gift of hope when they are feeling hopeless.
- Never underestimate the value of a teddy bear. A study out of Yale found that people who were lonely were often comforted by a special object – often a memento from a loved one like a teddy pair or favorite t-shirt or even by items given to them by celebrities. Parents are worried about attachments to blankets and teddy bears. Don’t be. Your child is using it to comfort himself – maybe even in the teen years. Almost every child though will eventually learn how to get the comfort they need, without being labeled as the “guy in law school with the teddy bear”.
Will your children get lonely from time to time? Absolutely. We all do. It’s one of the consequences of living in a fallen world. You can help your child be better prepared to handle those bouts of loneliness and move through them to a place where they once again feel loved and valued. It’s definitely worth the time and effort.